Sleazy ex-landlord managing to elude any attempt to recoup security.
November 6, 2013 5:14 PM   Subscribe

Two years ago I moved out of an apartment, with everything in good condition and good standing. My landlord ignored my requests for my security deposit, so I sued in small claims and won. Landlord has since ignored any attempt to recoup this debt, which is now - with damages and court fees - nearly $1,500. I've exhausted any resources I have to get this money back, and I'm hoping MeFites might have ideas or encouragement to help settle this in my favor.

(I realize there are other former questions on the subject, but I believe there are particulars relating to my county that make this a valid question.)

I moved out of an apartment in Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati) in May 2011. After leaving, the landlord - which is a shady .com company with no physical office (only a PO Box as the mailing address) and just a manager but no other indication of the owner, etc - ignored any request I made to get my security deposit back. I went to Small Claims Court that winter and won, by default because no one showed to defend their side (to which there was no defense - I had a file folder full of every kind of documentation possible to show I'd done everything right, the apartment was in good condition, and I was owed my $600 back). Since that point, the landlord has simply ignored any attempt I've made to get the money back, and the distressing thing is, this tactic seems to be working. They do this to everyone who moves out, as google is full of other former tenants who have found it difficult or impossible to get their deposits back and I've talked to other local landlords who say they have "refugees" from this company. Their MO seems to be to take in primarily undergraduates from our local university and exploit their lack of experience as tenants and the difficulty in getting a deposit back via small claims in order to keep deposits as profit.


My attempts to get my money back have been restricted to garnishing the landlord's bank account, which is through PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, PA. However, the type of garnishment available to me in this kind of dispute in Hamilton County apparently presents at the bank as if it were a check - that is, it attempts to collect once and, like a personal check, if there are insufficient funds in the account at that time, the request bounces and no further steps are taken. I've talked about this at length with the clerk who handles garnishments for my county and she says this is the only type of garnishment I am eligible to file. Thanks to administrative connections at PNC I've been able to find out that my former landlord has a number of accounts with PNC, and essentially what they do is take rental money into one account on the first of the month - the one that former tenants might know the account # for via canceled checks - and they promptly move it to another account or withdraw it in cash, making any funds unavailable to judgment creditors (of which, according to the clerk, there are many for this particular landlord). The garnishment clerk at my Small Claims basically said that all I can do is keep re-garnishing, hoping that one of my requests hits PNC on the first or second before the money is transferred out, but due to the processes involved in the garnishment (after I file the paperwork it has to be approved by a magistrate, then processed in-house, then mailed to Pittsburgh, then processed through PNC's internal channels before it gets to their garnishment department, not to mention this is all affected by the number of business days and holidays at the end of a given month) it is a crap shoot what day of the month will actually mean my paperwork gets to PNC on time.

I've done this several times now, each time spending about an hour at the clerk's office and paying to notarize the request and add a new set of court fees, meaning I have to front about $70 each time. I'm a grad student running out of funding, so this fronting of cash is becoming more and more difficult, especially as the prospect of ever getting my money back dims.

I've exhausted any resources I have here. Ohio Tenant Law, as I read it, is very vague about a tenant's ability to enforce a Small Claims decision in their favor. I'm not able to talk with a magistrate again, as the garnishment clerk is designated to deal with people in my situation and all she could tell me was that she sympathizes with having to deal with such a sleazy landlord, but I can only continue to re-garnish and hope one day this works. My university has a hotline for renters who need legal advice, but they are limited to telling me what section of code applies to my situation and that I'm able to garnish - not helpful any longer. They told me to get a lawyer. I can't afford a lawyer.

I'm at my wits' end, but I really - really - need this money back, not to mention it is the &(#! principle of the thing. This former landlord is a real !% scumbag and I am infuriated that this simple, despicable, but apparently effective plan of ignore, ignore, ignore makes them money on the backs of otherwise good tenants. I really hope the MeFites of the world can help me with any other tactics I haven't thought of to get my money back.
posted by AthenaPolias to Law & Government (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
IALNY; TINLA esp because I do not have knowledge of this area nor your jurisdiction. Speaking on a practical non-legal level would the rent from new tenants be a source of income you could garnish? Ie can you make them pay you instead of the landlord?
posted by girlpublisher at 5:30 PM on November 6, 2013

Not sure what the rules are in Ohio, but here (Maine) you can have what is known as a financial disclosure hearing. You landlord will have to bring proof of his finances and the judge will decide how much he has to pay per month based on how much money he earns. If he does not pay he can go to jail.
posted by unreasonable at 5:31 PM on November 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is the "landlord" the owner of the building, or are they just a management company that runs it on behalf of an owner?

If they own the building, I would look into placing a judgment lien on the property. Then if they don't pay, you can file for foreclosure.

If they are only managing the building, I would check the county assessor records to find out who the owner is and get in touch with them. If they aren't amenable to rectifying the situation, then I would start from scratch and sue them... this time, if you win, you have the option of placing a lien to collect your judgment.
posted by Sxyzzx at 5:43 PM on November 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

in california, once you get a judgment against someone, you can get the court clerk to issue a document called an "abstract of judgment". you then take the abstract over to the county recorder's office and record it, and it immediately creates a lien on any property in the county owned by the judgment debtor. in one memorable casefile, i had to record THREE abstracts against the SAME judgment debtor on behalf of an aggrieved tenant, she got the first two knocked out but the third one stood up, and i got fees and costs for all three.
posted by bruce at 6:03 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

If there are a lot of people being screwed this way, then this has become a criminal matter. You should go talk to the police. (I doubt that doing so will get you your money back, but you should do so anyway.)

Another possibility is finding a class-action lawyer.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:40 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

IAALBNYL, not in your jurisdiction and this is not legal advice. In my jurisdiction, when you have a money judgment against someone you can get a date for a debtor's exam in court. You send them notice of the date with a list of information to bring -- tax records, financial information and so forth. Then you get to go through it all and find other accounts to garnish. You could also ask the court to hold them in civil contempt for defying the judgment.

Your jurisdiction will have some kind of procedure in place for shaking money out of reluctant defendants. Talk to the clerk at your local court or find a lawyer who knows the rules in your area.
posted by mibo at 8:09 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know about Ohio but second the suggestion to look into getting a lien placed on the property - this seems to be an option in many jurisdictions. And I also second the suggestion to talk to a lawyer about collective legal action you can take with other former tenants in a similar situation.

In addition to the legal options, you can also try the activism/public pressure route. Get together with other similarly affected folks and start publicizing the problem.

Step 1: talk with local media. As a group ("Union of Current and Former Tenants of Slumlords, Inc." or something - specifically calling the group a tenants' union has a certain power to it in these circumstances). Seek out help with writing press releases if this is not something anyone in the group has done before. In addition to speaking to media as a group, you can organize a letter-writing campaign where people send letters to the editor as individuals. In this case, have a clear demand about payment due in full by a specified deadline.

Step 2: when the company misses your first deadline, escalate a step. Find the building owners if you only deal with a management co at present, and hold demonstrations/pickets at the offices of both the owners and the management company. And invite local media. Have a clear demand for repayment, with a specific deadline.

Step 2b: an alternate/parallel route for escalating your protest is to appeal to further authority rather than, or in addition to, the public at large. Get municipal, county, and state-level polititians involved. Get the administration of that area university involved. (Research political ties and campaign contributions of Slumlord Corp. as much as possible ahead of time).

Step 3: there are various (legal) options for further escalation. At this stage, if not sooner, it would likely be helpful to connect up with local activist and nonprofit groups doing similar work. They may have a lot of helpful advice for you. ACORN used to do this sort of work. Maybe there's a local anti-poverty group with tenant advocacy experience. There is most likely a legal aid organization that could provide lots of help for collective legal action if this is affecting low-income folks like students. Maybe there's a local Occupy Homes type group that could help provide bodies and letters and other support? Maybe there are some area residents who aren't part of a group currently, but have experience in tenants unions, rent strikes, etc. from back in the day when there was a wave of reform of tenancy laws around the country (and in Canada too, in fact), in response to more widespread activism on this issue in a number of cities.

Step 4: it sounds like this is a larger issue of tenancy law not providing effective, enforcable protections for tenants rights, which should be addressed by some changes in the law. Getting that law improved would be a good goal for a tenants' union! Legal aid should be able to help with this.

I have a little bit of experience with this sort of activism. Feel free to memail me if that's an option you're interested in pursuing and you want to talk more specifics. More than likely there are folks in your area with similar or more extensive experience as well.
posted by eviemath at 11:12 PM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have no specific legal advice to offer, but I will say, from personal experience, that small claims judgments are very difficult to collect. In essence, the judge may rule in your favor, but the actual collection of debts is up to you. It is more of a moral victory than an actual one.

Shady landlords (and, in my case, mechanics) know this and will avoid collection through a series of cover-ups and shells.

I'd suggest looking into how you can put a lien against his property, which is also almost certainly not going to work, either, as he can transfer the property into another name (another company sideline, for instance) and also you can't collect on a lien until the person tried to sell the property or dies.

So, not to be discouraging, but I fought for a settlement for about three years before conceding that while small claims court made me the winner, the payout was not forthcoming and never would be. There may be useful suggestions listed above in terms of putting pressure on the landlord/his company and making others aware of his shady dealings, but the small claims victory itself is not enough, in my experience, to garner you much of anything.

Good luck!
posted by mrfuga0 at 11:17 PM on November 6, 2013

"They do this to everyone who moves out, as google is full of other former tenants who have found it difficult or impossible to get their deposits back and I've talked to other local landlords who say they have "refugees" from this company. Their MO seems to be to take in primarily undergraduates from our local university and exploit their lack of experience as tenants and the difficulty in getting a deposit back via small claims in order to keep deposits as profit."

This is something that you can really work with because you are not the only victim. I second the notion of contacting local tv media and if you show them what you know about how this company has done this to so many students it is likely they will do a story on it and hunt him down. They'll also hunt down the other victims. Of coarse this all depends on how slow a news week it is as well, but I think you can seriously get some coverage in local media considering the scope of this. People do often get their money back this way.

If you fail with going to local tv media then go to your school's newspaper and give them an interview. This will not only help your cause, but it will warn other fellow students about this slumlord. Sometimes local news media is more interested after they've seen it printed somewhere else- like a graduate school or college newspaper.
posted by manderin at 11:49 PM on November 6, 2013

The garnishment order is not like a check: "Pay me $200." Instead it is an order "Pay me everything in the account," and then the bank has to determine how much of it is exempt before paying over the rest.

I like the idea of garnishing the tenants.

The other option, often overlooked, is a writ of execution. You get an order from the court, the sheriff sends someone to grab all of his property that is not exempt, and then it is sold at auction. That often gets people's attention in a hurry.
posted by megatherium at 3:47 AM on November 7, 2013

IF you have an individual's name, report them to the IRS (with any known bank accounts) and the police. I bet they aren't being up front about their income for taxes and could be committing straight fraud with fake receipts for "work" done to the properties. Having the money transferred to another account and withdrawn quickly in case smells like tax evasion. This will not really get you funds, but you could help put his crap operation to rest.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:37 AM on November 7, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the input, everyone. Some of the things brought up here are ones I have looked into and probably should have included in the original question - let me expand.

I've been told by one of the clerks at Small Claims that several people have successfully placed liens against properties owned by the landlord - of course, though, they cannot collect on these until the buildings are sold, and frankly I am concerned that the landlord will declare bankruptcy before any sale ever happens. They are routinely thousands of dollars in debt to utility companies - we had the water shut off once for a day due to a $3,000 overdue bill - and the manager frequently mentioned to me, in response to any discussion about rent, fees, etc that they had no money. The owner is clearly mismanaging the business for his own personal profit.

I do have the option of holding a judgment debtor exam, where the creditor has the debtor come in to answer questions about their assets in front of a magistrate. However, since they have ignored every single communication, legal or otherwise, from me since I moved out, there is no reason to think they will attend this exam. It is not legally enforceable that they do so, so this would be another set of court fees for me, probably to no end.

My main problem is my lack of information about my options in Ohio. I know the business' legal name, another business name he may have some assets under, and I believe I know the owner personally (if it's the right guy, he was my next door neighbor. The gall....). I cannot verify if this business is actually his, though, since he's carefully kept his name off of things. After this point, though, I lose any knowledge of what I can actually do with this information - I don't know the law, nor do I have any resources to learn about it that I know of, and as I'm a grad student finishing a dissertation, I really do not have the time to bone up on legal matters in order to pursue these other options. So basically, I have information and no idea what to do with it, based on Ohio law. Which is, as I said, vague, and utterly maddening.

I've floated this idea to a local paper and a news channel, but received no answer. I could pursue this further, but I would much rather keep my name out of the press since I have a developing professional image and it could be potentially problematic if googling my name turns up court documents and press attention for a civil court matter, rather than my research.

I guess I'm not exactly sure what I am asking for, because I am so far out of my depth I don't know what my options are. I know this is why people have lawyers, but with 3 digits in my bank account and impending unemployment, I really cannot afford to hire one. I'm at my wits end, and more than a little frustrated.
posted by AthenaPolias at 7:59 AM on November 7, 2013

A lawyer might not cost you anything. If you got a class-action suit going, the lawyer works for a percentage. Or sometimes the suit asks for lawyers fees as part of the settlement. Either way, it doesn't come out of your pocket.

You may not be sure who the owner is, but certainly the manager knows, and a lawyer could depose the manager under oath.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:05 AM on November 7, 2013

Best answer: Have you been to legal aid (you didn't mention, so apologies if you have)? They deal with this sort of stuff on a regular basis. They may also be able to connect you up with a tenant union or other group who you could take collective action with, so that it isn't your name in the press.

Some other resources: University of Cincinnati Tenant Information Project, some links in section 9 of this pamphlet, and possibly Fair Housing Advocates Association. Aside from the first link, these are not lawyers, but they could help you connect up with, or organize, a group of current and former tenants who you can work together with to get your deposit back, without having your name appear in the press. Here's an article about two groups of the sort that could be helpful to you that seem to have been active a couple years ago, for example. While ACORN is no longer in existence, you can look up their lawyer mentioned in this article, who more than likely is still in touch with the activist communities that would have been connected to ACORN, and could probably also help you find a group to help you out. I suspect that the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition may have advocates willing to help you out as well, given that this is an ongoing, larger problem with your ex-landlord. Your university, and especially student government or relevant student groups (do you have a PIRG branch, for example?), can be a good resource as well! If this is a problem affecting a significant number of students, for example, the university student resources or dean of students offices may want to put some money into lawyers and such to help out.

In addition to helping you find or start a group so that you can get your problems addressed without having to do all the work and be the public face yourself - and because media listens more when it's an organized group sending out a press release than when it's just an individual with an apparently individual complaint - these groups can almost surely help you find more information about who, exactly, your ex-landlord is, and the chain of businesses and such involved - in other words, who you should be targeting for a (legal and starting with appropriate measures then escalating as necessary) public pressure/shaming campaign targeting your ex-landlord. These groups will all have experience organizing such campaigns and can be helpful resources and advocates for you in this respect, as well.

An example of how this works: in my first tenant advocate experience helping someone else, the landlords in question ignored order after order from the local residential tenancies board to repair stuff at the resident's apartment. She spent over a year going through official channels, with no results and no consequences for the derelict landlord, starting on her own, then bringing us to hearings with her. After a period of escalation, sending out press releases from the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty and talking to local media (she had to be willing to talk to media and have her name appear, but those of us working with her also got interviewed, so it wasn't just her name, and the organization's name was featured most prominently; and the press releases and such got taken much more seriously by local media coming from an organization rather than an individual), with some but minimal results, we made up a flyer with photos of the resident's apartment and maintenance problems juxtaposed with the nice new house that the landlord had just purchased and moved in to. Added a little explanatory text. And distributed the flyers to the landlord's new neighbors (this was also a joint effort, though she didn't have to identify herself as the tenant in all cases when we were talking to neighbors at their front doors if she felt uncomfortable). This was, mind you, after a period (months) of reasonable escalation of tactics, not the first action that we started with. It was the last thing we had to do though - repairs got made soon after. The landlord then tried to raise the rent exhorbitantly at the next available opportunity, which we were able to successfully fight at the residential tenancies board as a retaliatory action. If former tenants who have been screwed over by your ex-landlord get together with each other, your individual voices will be much stronger. If, additionally, you get together with current tenants of this landlord, then you have some additional pressure options to keep in your back pocket in case of need, such as rent strikes.
posted by eviemath at 9:16 AM on November 7, 2013

PS. Don't worry about whether they declare bankruptcy. In fact, if they do and you have already perfected your lien, you could be one of the first people in line to get paid. (So that means do whatever necessary to get your paperwork done!)
posted by mibo at 9:34 AM on November 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You have a judgment. That's good.

Your judgment has increased in value due to failed recovery efforts. Also good.

Instead of a lawyer, have you looked into the services of a Judgment Recovery Specialist?
A JRS is a legal para-professional who specializes in recovery of monies from debtors. The JRS will know more angles to squeeze money from your former landlord than you do. As I understand it, the JRS will "purchase" your judgment from you for a percentage of its value, and then attempt to recover the money from the debtor. If the JRS can recover more than what he/she paid you for the judgment, they profit.

Suggest you google "Judgment recovery Cincinnati" and see if there are some JRSs in your area that could navigate this for you.
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